Deacon led Tejas, from the barn. The buckskin stood fifteen hands high and weighed a thousand pounds. The monstrous stud had more than earned his keep by siring over two dozen descendants at 5Horses. Strong-limbed, sure-footed and faster than a whirlwind screeching through a canyon, the horse had outrun the ponies of bandits, Indians and assorted unsavory characters in the past.
Sefton strolled onto the porch and, with raised brows, shot him a curious glance. Deacon held no illusions about leaving 5Horses without protest from their youngest brother.
"Morning," Deacon gave him a brilliant smile. "You're up early."
"A deaf pig couldn't sleep through all the commotion. You're headed out?" Sefton glanced toward the gear stuffed behind Tejas' saddle.
"Looks like you plan to be gone for a time."
Deacon came to a halt near the porch and smiled at the baby of the brood. Sefton was the male version of their mother; tall and lean but with muscle and strength in all the right places. Most said he was strikingly handsome with his high cheekbones and the straight, narrow nose that defined his chiseled features. His eyes were Bannister blue, but pale as moonlight rather than sea-blue like the others.
"Can I ride with you?"
Deacon shook his head. "Not this time, kid."
"You're thinking I slept through the conversation, but I heard most of it."
"Eavesdropping again, huh?"
"Seems it's the only way I find out what's really happening." Deacon smiled. "Gideon would have filled you in soon enough."
"Yeah, I know, long after you'd left." Sefton squinted through the morning sun. "You haven't told me why I can't go with you."
"Here's three." Deacon blew air through his lips. "New Mexico is riddled with hostile Indian right now. Reason two, before Ma died, we promised her you'd get an education, graduate from some fancy-pants school out East. And three, you're needed at 5Horses right now."
"That's bullshit, Deacon."
"No, it's not." He pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of his shirt and passed it across the saddle. "I made a quick list. Pepe and Ramone can handle the work while I'm gone but I need you to oversee it."
Sefton scanned the paper and affected a defiant expression. "What the hell did you assign to Gideon, drinking and carousing?"
"Now there's a pleasant thought," Gideon interjected from the porch.
"Gideon made his own list. Maybe you two can exchange if you think he's loafing."
"Ha-ha." Sefton looked toward the clouds while an uncomfortable silence settled around them.
"Something else on your mind, little brother? Now's the time to speak up."
He looked into Deacon's eyes. "What if you don't come back this time, what if you die like Ma and—?"
"Not going to happen." God, the kid's pathetic expression crushed his heart. "Look at me. I'm coming back. Is that what you're all worked up about?"
"Why wouldn't it cross my mind? I read the papers too. P. Caldwell put an ad in last week offering seven hundred and fifty dollars in gold for the safe return of his wife. She was abducted by Indians in the foothills of the mountains. Isn't that where you're headed?"
Deacon offered a subtle nod.
Last week, another newspaper paper reported Indian depredations are more frequent and more daring than ever. During the last three weeks, upward of two-hundred head of horses have been stolen from Lincoln County."
Gideon piped in again. "Like Deacon said, the country is riddled with Indian problems."
"Just one time, Gideon, I wish you'd take my part."
"I will when you start talking sense. I can't take up your cause in this case."
"Here's the truth." Deacon kept his voice calm. "We don't know where you'd be safer with everything going on right now. If something happens at 5Horses while I'm gone, I'll deem it an act of God. On the other hand, if I let you ride with me and you get yourself killed, I'll deem it a goddamn stupid decision on my part. Do you want me to live with that, Seft?"
He kicked at the floorboards "I ain't one of Ma's creampuffs so stop treating me like one."
"Do you remember Ma's creampuffs?"
Seft looked off into the distance again. "Like it was yesterday."
"Good, that's good, brother. I want you to keep on remembering everything you can about Ma and Pa. She pinned all her hopes and dreams on you. When you were born, Ma looked at Pa, her voice colder than steel. 'You're not taking this one from me, Garrett. He's not going to be rancher.'"
"That's bullshit," a pause, "even if it is true. For all I know, she never made you and Gideon promise nothing."
Sefton turned and walked toward the door, looking more dejected than a coonhound.
"Tell you what," Deacon called out. "When I get back, Gideon and I will take you into White Oaks for a night. We'll belly up to the bar till you can't piss straight and then set you up with the sweetest-smelling whore in town. She'll do things to you that would make a seasoned vaquero blush."
"What makes you think some sweet-smelling whore hasn't already done things to me?" Turning to face Deacon again, he added, "For someone who's supposed to watch out for their fifteen year old brother, you don't know shit about me."
"Well, hell, is that what you are now…fifteen?"
"Stuff it, Deacon. You were ten years older than me two years ago and you're ten years older than me today, so don't pretend you lost count."
Gideon rolled his eyes before exchanging a puzzled look with Deacon. "Go on, I'll smooth things over with the pup when he cools off."
He shook his head and frowned. "Take care of yourself, brother, and watch Sefton's back."
Gideon gave a thumbs up.
Deacon mounted, dug his spurs into Tejas and headed out with Vapor running in circles around them. Over his shoulder, he took a last look at the ranch. Sefton and Gideon stood on the front porch, waving.
He prayed he'd see them again.